Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sunday Sermon: Touching God

John 20:19 - 29 Jesus Confronts Thomas

It was just an ordinary day back in Maybole, Scotland. I had been making house calls in the village of Dunure, which was about 9 miles away from the manse. I was heading home and thinking about what Evelyn might be making for my dinner. The sun was shining and the sea looked beautiful as I coasted my way back home.

When I got to the manse, I expected Lynsey and Lauren to come out to meet me, but they didn’t. I walked through the back door and met Evelyn in the kitchen. I could see in her eyes that something was wrong.

“John, I’ve got some bad news,” she said quietly. “Your Mom is dead.”

I was stunned. I knew that my mom was ill and had been for years, but this was sudden and completely unexpected. I obviously couldn’t take it in, so I think Evelyn told me again. I was quiet and couldn’t think of anything to say. Within thirty minutes, I was ready to head up to Glasgow to be with my family, to be with my Dad.

All this happened about seventeen years ago, but it was so much of a shock to my system that I can’t really remember what happened over the next couple of weeks. I can recall being with my Dad down at the police station to be with him when a detective inspector interviewed him. Because my mother’s death was so sudden and happened when she was alone, my Dad had to be questioned. The whole interview was surrealistic and it suddenly dawned on me that they were interviewing my Dad to rule out murder. It was an awful feeling and it seemed so unfair at the time because my Dad was still shocked by mom’s death.

He had left her on her own to go and select some library books. When he returned twenty minutes later, he found her slumped over in her chair. She was gone and there was absolutely nothing he could do. The coroner who did the autopsy said that she died instantly from a massive heart attack, so even if Dad had been there, he never could have saved her. She was only 57 years old.

As I said before, my memory of the whole event, funeral, and family gathering after it is all fuzzy. I can hardly remember any of it, and even today it all seems so unreal.

Sudden death can do that to people. John House, who is great psychologist in our congregation, has probably had to deal with this on many occasions. Today, in this passage from John’s Gospel, we see something similar happening to Thomas. He has been emotionally stunned by Christ’s death. He has been totally shocked by how fast things happened during the week in Jerusalem. One day, Christ and His disciples are being welcomed into the Holy City and within less than a week, Jesus is arrested, tortured, put on trial, humiliated, and crucified.

Thomas, who ran away with the rest of the disciples, cannot cope with what has happened. All his hopes and dreams of being a major player in Christ’s triumphant ministry have been shattered and destroyed. He has nothing left spiritually or emotionally. He is empty and insecure, totally depressed and fearful for his life. This has been the greatest shock to his system that Thomas has ever experienced, and he just wants to get away from everyone and everything. He just wants to forget about the last three years he has followed Jesus. He just wants to get his life back in order. He just wants to go home.

But he can’t go home because people will recognize him, and he may get arrested by the authorities. So for a couple of days, Thomas is on the lam. He must have hid outside of Jerusalem and got lost in the Passover crowds who were returning home. He was lonely and frightened, possibly angry and sick within himself. He must have felt abandoned and hunted at the same time.

Eventually, the other disciples find Thomas. He must have been surprised to see them happy and delighted. He thought that they should have been dejected and depressed, panic stricken and anxious. Instead, they are delirious with delight and full of joy.

But when they explain to Thomas that Christ is not dead, that he has risen, it’s all too much for the disciple. He can’t believe what he is hearing, so he thinks that they are all crazy with grief and totally insane. But they keep insisting that Christ is alive until Thomas finally shouts out:

"Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."

Today is the 76th anniversary of Amelia Earhart’s solo flight across the Atlantic. She was the first woman to do this, in a time when men were getting all the credit for being heroes of the sky. When she was given the opportunity to do this, the usual Doubting Thomases said that it couldn’t be done. To fly solo across the Atlantic required intellect and skill, focus and determination, energy and strength. A mere woman could not endure such a flight, and anyone who decided to attempt this must be a lunatic.

But Amelia proved her critics wrong. She even flew through a terrifying mid-Atlantic storm, which surrounded her with dark clouds that almost petrified her.

"When daylight came,” she later said, “I could see on my wings traces of the ice which had gathered—droplets of water and very small frozen particles. Probably, if I had been able to see what was happening on the outside during the night, I would have had heart failure then and there; but, as I could not see, I carried on.”

Even in the midst of fearful circumstances, she never doubted her ability to complete the journey. When she was interviewed after her achievement, she stated that "The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward."

When Thomas refused to believe the others, there was nothing on earth that they could do to convince him of the truth. I imagine that all week long, he was in a sultry, sour mood because the rest of the disciples wouldn’t stop talking about Christ’s resurrection. It must have almost driven him crazy, but there was nowhere else he could go. His fears were more than paper tigers; they were causing him sleepless nights and moments of high anxiety. He was in a crazy situation, amongst crazy people, and he couldn’t escape. He was so emotionally paralyzed with shock and fear that he could not decide what to do.

And then Christ came back into Thomas’ life, just as suddenly as he had left him. One moment, all the disciples were in the Upper Room praying together on their own; the very next moment, Christ was in the center of the room.

Now if Thomas had been initially shocked by Christ arrest and crucifixion, this supernatural appearance must have almost caused him heart failure. Jesus was standing before him, just as the others had said. And before Thomas could drop to his knees and ask for mercy, Jesus called to him and said, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."

I can picture Thomas with his mouth wide open and his eyes as large as the moon. For the second time in a week, he cannot believe what is happening. Slowly, he reaches out his fingers to touch the nail prints in Christ’s hands and even to touch the wound in His side. All of a sudden, it is too much for Thomas, and he falls to his knees, crying out, “My Lord and my God!”

This is the most important passage from the Gospels about the resurrection for our people today. And I’ll tell you why.

In recent years, there has been interest in the so called Gospel of Thomas, which many people falsely believe has secrets about Jesus that the Church wants to be kept hidden. This Gospel was written by a group of people called the Gnostics, who believed that Jesus wasn’t crucified because God had taken Him up to heaven and that it was a ghostly image or a specter, or what we would call a hologram that seemed to be crucified on the Cross. In other words, Christ’s physical body was never there, so He didn’t suffer any physical torment, excruciating pain, or death itself.

This has led many people to believe that the resurrection of Christ was only a spiritual one. This Gnostic garbage was prevalent in North Africa during the 4th – 7th centuries AD. So when Muhammad started to write down the Koran, he was influenced by the false teachings of Gnosticism, so that to this day the Muslims believe that Christ never actually suffered on the Cross. And, as Mark Twain delighted in saying, “Bunkum! Absolute bunkum!”

And this is further compounded by the fact that even in the PCUSA, we have misguided pastors who do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but insist that the Gospel of Thomas should be researched, studied, and read in church in order to bring us closer to the real Historical Jesus who, as one of these pastors recently said, died and His body has decomposed and turned to dust in a forgotten cave somewhere in Palestine.

When Thomas touches Christ, he is touching a real body that has been miraculously resurrected by God. This whole passage refutes any belief in a spiritual resurrection of Christ. And I would say to you, and anyone in the world, that if you do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, then you are not a Christian. You can be a modern Gnostic, you can be Muslim, or you can be a skeptic, but what you cannot be is a Christian.

And where do I get this conclusion from? It comes none other from Jesus Christ Himself, who finally says to Thomas: "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

Those words are meant for us, two thousand years in the future. We have not seen the resurrected Christ and yet we believe in Him. We have not yet touched Him, and yet we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It’s what makes us Christians in the first place, and distinguishes us from other religions. Jesus is our Risen Lord and He is also the God of all creation. He is no paper tiger, or spiritual phantom. Christ is no figment of the true Gospel writers or an apparition of a bunch of hysterical disciples. Jesus is the Resurrected Christ, whose wounded, dead body was raised by the power of Almighty God, whom we worship, adore, and serve, both now and forevermore. Amen.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

An Easter Message for Our Town

The apostle Peter was one of the first witnesses to see Christ's empty tomb. it changed his life forever. Fifty days after Christ was resurrected, Peter preached a short sermon to the people in Jerusalem which caused thousands to repent of the crucifixion and accept Jesus as the Messiah. If Peter was alive in our town, what would he say to us today?

People of Our Town, pay attention to this: Jesus of the past was the Savior, given by God to us, who performed many miracles, who revealed mysterious and eternal things, and who taught us amazing truths about God, which we have learned through the Holy Scriptures since we were children.

This Jesus was handed over to humanity by God’s will, for the purpose of rescuing humankind from sin, but we humans, through our own wickedness, envy, and fear, tortured and executed Him, by nailing Him to a shameful and horrifying cross.

But God would not forsake Jesus, nor would He allow His body to decompose in death; instead God freed Him from the finality, loneliness, and darkness of death, and raised Him bodily, so that it was impossible for Jesus to remain dead.

A thousand years before Christ lived, the Holy Scriptures told this about Him: The Lord will always exist and because He sits at the right hand of God, He will never be overcome, cast aside, nor forgotten.

Therefore, all human hearts may be glad and sing forever; our bodies and souls will experience an everlasting hope, because God will not abandon us to our graves, to dust, or ashes; nor will God ever let Christ be diminished throughout history, and across all of Time.

For God makes known to us, through Jesus Christ alone, the paths that lie ahead of us, which will fill us with happiness and confidence; for throughout our lives, we will always be in God’s presence.

Brothers and sisters, let me tell you confidently that the old kings and writers of the past, all died, were buried, and returned to dust. But they were prophets and they knew that God’s words and promises were true. They believed, and waited for the Promised One to come and be the Ruler of the Earth

And all of these prophecies and promises were fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who was resurrected from death; He was not trapped beneath the earth, nor did His body lie a-moldering in His grave. God raised this Jesus to real, abundant, and eternal life, and there were many witnesses to that amazing fact.

Jesus was totally honored by God for what he accomplished with His life, His death, and His resurrection. He is now enthroned with God, for all of eternity. His Spirit remains and influences the entire world. Billions of people on earth are changed by His power, presence, and personal connection to them.

Even although the people who lived before Jesus did not go to heaven before He came, they still believed that He would come and change the world. He would become the Lord of all God’s people. His reign would never end and those who opposed Him would never be able to overcome Him.

Therefore, people of our town, be assured and certain of this: God made Jesus, whom we crucified and killed, the Lord of all Creation and the King of the Universe.

As we hear these challenging words, our hearts should be pierced because of our faithless ways and unholy lives. We should be ashamed of our sins and fearful of God’s wrath. We should be perplexed about how we have often offended God by taking Him for granted and neglecting to honor His Son. And if Peter were actually here, we would be asking him, “What can we do?”

To which Peter would reply: be sincerely sorry for being disrespectful to God, get baptized, and truly seek to immerse your life in the knowledge, worship, and service of Jesus Christ. Without these, your sins can never be forgiven; with these, you will be sent the Holy Spirit to guide, comfort, and counsel you throughout your entire life.

And this promise of God’s goodwill, mercy, and grace will be for you, your children, and grandchildren, and for many generations to come. This is the calling of the Lord. Hear it and obey Him.

Peter would have us listen to his words, both encouraging and cautioning us at the same time. And above all, he would make this plea: “Save yourselves from this corrupt world.”

If we accept the message of the Gospel, by truly believing in Christ who was raised from the dead, then we will be eternally added to Christ’s Eternal Church and everlasting Kingdom on this Easter Day, and forevermore. Amen.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Holy Week 2008

I know I shouldn't, but...

Holy Week 2008

Somehow, I think we've seen this all before...

Stushie is a Presbyterian pastor and draws political cartoons at his Pushing the Envelope blogsite

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Democrat Delegate Debacle

I know that the Church shouldn't get involved in politics, but this has been going on for far too long.

May I offer an easy solution?

Instead of wasting time and millions of dollars on re-voting, just make all of the Florida and Michigan delegates into super-delegates for this Convention. That way everyone is represented and all the States get to make their votes count.

See? wasn't that easy?...Now get out there and spread the word...perhaps it will reach the Democrat HQ before the Convention.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Nothing But the Truth

Podcast version here

Romans 6: 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.

This week, our church hosted a special performance by the Word Players of Knoxville. They put on their production of “A Woman Called Truth.” It was a remarkable play, which told the story of a slave woman from the North East, who fought against her captors to win freedom for herself, her son, and her family.

I was really impressed by the whole cast, who portrayed her story in a wonderful and engaging way. I was also struck by how relevant Sojourner Truth’s life still is for what we experience today. People may not be sold as slaves any longer, but the old prejudices and racism still persist. Just recently, a major politician, who should have known better, made an unintentional racial slur against a presidential candidate. It was unintended, but it was still racist, and what makes it even more repugnant, is that many people don’t see the racism in the remark. But that’s how the scourge of racism works – subtly and under the radar – until it becomes acceptable to the general public.

Sin operates in a similar fashion, especially in the areas of obsession and addiction. Habitual sin diminishes our faith moment by moment, event by event, sin by sin, until it becomes a major problem. The ex-Governor of New York was seduced by his own addiction, but instead of seeking help, he let it overcome him until it has ruined his career, his marriage, and possibly his life.

Sin, racism, and even slavery are insidious. They start off small and then grow like a cancer until they take over poor souls and an ignorant populace, transforming sinners and society into something soulless. That’s why Paul emphasizes the Cross in so much of his letters. It is the one safe haven for all sinners. It is the one place and time where we can be truly set free. It is the most pivotal event in human history where we, who have been enslaved by obsession and sin, insecurity and insensitivity, rancor and racism, can be liberated by our Deliverer Christ Jesus for all of eternity. Instead of hanging on to our hang ups, we can let go and let God transform us through Christ and His Cross.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, liberate us from our fears and sins, our prejudices and pride, our mistakes and misconceptions. Open our hearts and souls to Your words and ways. Keep us from following self-satisfying paths that lead to self-destruction. Help us to latch on to Your leadership and grant us Your godly counsel in all that we seek to accomplish this day. In Your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.

Stushie is the pastor at Erin Presbyterian in Knoxville, TN. He is also the writer of the daily devotional Heaven's Highway.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Presbyterian Devotions: Troubling Ourselves

I’m going to an African-American church this Sunday afternoon to preach at a special service. Black prayer week begins on Sunday and this year the African American community is focusing on AIDS and its impact on their people. I’ve been invited as one of the preachers to give a message about how poorly the Church responded to AIDS sufferers in the 1980s & 1990s, and how that negatively impacted the credibility of the Church across the world.

Too many pastors and churches were too quick to pass judgment on HIV sufferers and AIDS victims. Instead of acting with compassion to those who were dying, we showed hostility and hatred which sadly is still evident in some congregations. We were too quick to say that God was punishing the gay community instead of using it as an opportunity to show the love and grace of Christ. We were too willing to create outcasts and lepers among those who were already on the margins of society.

Bible Verse of the Day
Joshua 7:25 Joshua said, "Why have you brought this trouble on us? The LORD will bring trouble on you today."

The trouble that we created with our self-righteousness is hard to overcome. Instead of asking AIDS sufferers and victims to seek the Lord’s forgiveness, we have to seek their pardon of our foolishness. If the Church wants to regain credibility in the world, it will have to act humbly and show contrition to those we hurt and damaged. If we cast aside this opportunity to seek the grace of God in those we treated ungraciously, then the Church will never be healed of the brokenness that we caused.

One day the AIDS virus may be effectively cured, but will the Church still be the last victim of this disease?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, forgive our arrogant and foolish ways when we become self-righteous and hypocritical. Enable us to see the trouble that we have caused to other people, other groups, and other communities across the world. Help us to seek their forgiveness and teach us lessons of humility, contrition, and grace. In Your Holy Name, we humbly pray. Amen.
Stushie is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He writes the daily devotions' blog called Heaven's Highway.